Rocketships and Body Hacks: Exploring the Unique Features of Sci-Fi Subgenres

Exploring the unique features of sci-fi subgenres

When I think of science fiction, I think of spaceships blasting through asteroid belts, white-knuckled pilots at the helm. I think of colonization and alien diplomacy, of faster-than-light travel, of exploring the unknown with a loyal crew.

Logically, I know there’s more to the genre than that. I’ve never been a huge fan of space opera, so I tend to gravitate toward blends of sci-fi and horror, or stories with time travel, especially if they focus on the human element. Despite the genre’s associations with aliens and space, sci-fi is a pretty diverse field encompassing stories of all kinds; sci-fi subgenres range from subtle shifts in reality to entirely new universes completely unlike our own. Even the all-important spaceship is little more than a tool; the trappings and tropes of sci-fi subgenres are available for many different purposes, making science fiction a genre with incredible potential for diverse, wide-reaching stories.

Biopunk and Cyberpunk Explore the Ramifications of Technological Advancement

It’s natural that games, a technological medium, would often feature discussions of how technology is integrated into our lives. Cyberpunk and its derivative, biopunk, are two genres that explore the relationship between humans, society, and technology, and are quite popular in the gaming world.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided Screenshot
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided uses biopunk and cyberpunk elements to discuss modern themes of xenophobia. Image Source:

The Deus Ex franchise is a solid mixture of both cyberpunk and biopunk, as the world itself features the breakdowns between different classes and the ways that technology enforces that division. The protagonist of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Adam Jensen, is a heavily-augmented human in a time in which augmented humans are feared. The series, including the most recent game, grapples with concepts like segregation and the ethics of body augmentation. Futuristic technology is one of the cornerstones of sci-fi, and games like this take a different view of it than more utopic visions of the future.

Finding Humanity in Social Science Fiction

Social science fiction isn’t defined by how sci-fi it is, but rather how it uses the trappings and tropes of the genre to discuss contemporary issues. Stories like this, instead of focusing purely on creating a sense of wonder, aim to discuss a contemporary social issue or concern through dramatization.

Emotional Investment with Alice in Loading Human
While the science fiction element is crucial to Loading Human‘s story, so is the human element—characters like Alice ground the story in realistic, relatable themes despite its far-future setting.

Loading Human, an upcoming VR title, does this with modern themes of love, loss, and relationships. But instead of creating a game that’s set in today’s world, Untold Games has taken futuristic ideas of space travel and life extension and extrapolated a futuristic story built on modern concerns. You play as Prometheus, tasked with retrieving a life-extending energy source to save your father, but that task will require you to make sacrifices and weigh what’s most important to you. Loading Human is clearly a sci-fi story, but it fits squarely within the social science fiction subgenre because of its focus on human emotion, as explored through things like space travel and science.

Space Opera Searches for Meaning Beyond Earth

Space opera is the genre most people think of when they think of science fiction—space exploration, warfare, and adventure are the biggest pieces of the genre. Popularized, but not invented by, the Star Wars films, space opera remains a popular sci-fi subgenre in a variety of media.

EVE Online Space Opera
EVE Online is space opera at its finest, letting you explore an enormous universe, engaging in trading, warfare, and piracy at your leisure. Image Source: Tim Jones via Flickr.

EVE Online is one of the best examples of space opera in gaming, as its focus is not so much on the individual people inhabiting the universe, but rather the exciting battles, the economy, and the creation of a new society in virtual space that keeps people playing. Space opera is all about excitement—while something like Loading Human uses a slower pace and an emotional focus to tell its story, EVE Online puts its emphasis on battles and thrills. Both are sci-fi, but use the same ideas of space travel differently, showing how diverse even one feature of a genre can be.

Slipstream’s Slippery Definition Encompasses Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Slipstream is a newer subgenre. Coined in 1989, the term refers to fiction that fits somewhere between literary fiction and genres like sci-fi or fantasy. Bruce Sterling, who invented the term, used it to refer to stories that make you feel strange in a uniquely modern sense.

Kentucky Route Zero Slipstream Fiction
Kentucky Route Zero is a bit sci-fi, a bit fantasy, and all-around strange; slipstream fiction at its finest. Image Source: K Putt via Flickr.

Because the definition is so vague, it’s hard to pin down exactly what defines a slipstream game. Similar to magical realism, slipstream exists between clear genre lines. Think Kentucky Route Zero, Jazzpunk, or The Magic Circle—a little absurd, a little disconcerting, and uniquely situated in today’s world. Though Jazzpunk is a Cold War-esque title, its humor and absurdity comes from looking back at that era today, and these games’ weirdness and strange use of tropes like time travel, scientific devices, and game programming make them cross-genre, slipstream-y titles.

Hard Science Fiction Emphasizes the Sci in Sci-Fi Stories

Hard science fiction is a subgenre that focuses heavily on the science in science fiction. While it’s not necessarily educational, hard science fiction explores fictional ideas with real science, challenging how we think about sci-fi staples like time travel or terraforming.

Policenauts Hard Science Fiction
Policenauts, one of Hideo Kojima’s early games, concerns the consequences of too much time spent in space. Image Source: ArtemioUrbina via Flickr.

Hard science fiction is rare in games, where the emphasis is often on excitement and action over intellectual discussions of realistic science. One of Hideo Kojima’s first games, Policenauts, is one of the few. In this game, players explore the ramifications of remaining in space too long, using investigative and reasoning skills as well as reflexes to progress. The focus on the repercussions of space travel drives the plot, and though the story itself isn’t necessarily realistic, the science-minded way the characters approach it is what designates the game as hard sci-fi.

Sci-Fi Subgenres Showcase the Range of Possibilities in Science Fiction Elements

Science fiction is a broad genre, despite whatever instantaneous associations we might have with the words. It isn’t just adventures in space, nor is it just intensive looks at our anxieties and concerns through time travel and gadgets. Sci-fi subgenres take the things we associate with the genre and use them in unique ways. Loading Human, EVE Online, and Policenauts all tackle space travel in different fashions, showing how many applications even one single sci-fi element can have.

Loading Human is as much science fiction as it is an emotional journey, combining the best features of speculative and realistic fiction. Preorder your copy today!


Michelle Peniche

Pokemon catcher, coffee lover, part time road tripper.

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